Baker: Sanctuary city status best left to locals

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Written by Colin A. Young

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON — The decision of whether to defy federal immigration laws and provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants should be left up to municipal officials and not the state government, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday.

“Local officials for the most part are, I believe, the most accountable to the people in their communities,” Baker said. “They should make the decisions with respect to what they want to do and how they want to handle this.”

Baker’s comments came in the wake of a war of words between a Republican candidate for president and the Democratic mayor of Somerville, whose city is considered a “sanctuary city.”

Sanctuary cities, while not a legal designation, are those where policies exist to prevent police and other officials from asking about immigration status or to use municipal resources to enforce federal immigration law.

During an appearance on Boston Herald Radio earlier this week, Republican presidential candidate and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal suggested mayors of sanctuary cities should be held criminally liable as accessories to crimes committed by illegal immigrants.

Curtatone, who signed an executive order removing Somerville from the federal Secure Communities program, fired back, challenging Jindal to a debate and calling the governor “Deputy Barney Fife.” “Come and get me,” Curtatone was quoted saying in the Herald.

Baker said his opinion is colored by his own experience as a local official, having served on the Board of Selectmen in Swampscott, and cited the contrasting approaches the mayors of Boston, Somerville and Lawrence have taken to the issue.

“We have a perfect example of why I don’t think we should have a statewide policy on this, other than I believe everybody should obey the law, and I certainly believe we should take bad actors and violent criminals off the street when we have the opportunity to do that,” Baker said. “If you look at the way (Mayor) Dan Rivera chose to approach this up in Lawrence, or you look at the way Mayor Marty Walsh is approaching this in Boston, or you look at the way Joe Curtatone is approaching this in Somerville, three really different approaches from the people who, in my opinion, are most accountable to the people in their community.”

The issue of sanctuary cities was the subject of emotional debate on the House floor in 2013 shortly after the Boston Marathon bombings and the killing of three people at Fort Hood in Texas.

Rep. Marc Lombardo proposed an amendment to the state budget that would have withheld unrestricted state aid from any city or town that did not comply with federal immigration laws. The amendment failed, 31-125, but it sparked impassioned debate from legislators on both sides of the issue.

Lombardo said Thursday that he files a bill every year that would withhold unrestricted local aid to any sanctuary city because of the financial strain put on the entire state by providing social services for illegal immigrants.

“As a state, we’re spending nearly $2 billion a year on benefits for those who are breaking the rules and are illegally here in the country,” he said. “The last thing we should be doing as a Commonwealth is allowing our communities to open themselves up as sanctuary cities, which would further draw the population that’s here illegally into the Commonwealth.”

Lombardo’s bill (H 1856), was referred in January to the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government. The committee has not yet held a hearing on the legislation.

Meanwhile, Sen. James Eldridge and Rep. Evandro Carvalho earlier this year filed legislation that would prevent local police departments from arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants based solely on their immigration status.

The bill (H 1228 and S 1258) would direct law enforcement to “focus on those undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes, not those here who haven’t committed a crime but are just here trying to provide a better life for themselves and their family by limiting the ability of police to detain undocumented immigrants unless they do have a serious criminal record,” Eldridge said.

Eldridge said the bill would restore trust between the immigrant community and police, in part to prevent undocumented immigrants from failing to report a crime out of fear of being deported.

The Carvalho/Eldridge bill is currently in the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, and Eldridge said he expects it will be the subject of a hearing “mid- to late-fall.”

In an op-ed in the Boston Globe last month, Meredith Warren, a former aide to House Minority Leader Bradley Jones who now operates a consulting firm, argued that allowing local officials “to pick and choose which federal laws to comply with” is a dangerous proposition.

“The term ‘sanctuary city’ sounds warm and fuzzy, and that’s what proponents want you to think. They say sanctuary cities build trust with immigrant communities by removing the threat of a call to federal immigration officials if undocumented immigrants interface with local law enforcement,” Warren wrote.

“But the stakes are high. In the first nine months of last year, sanctuary communities across the country refused 8,811 requests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold illegal immigrants in local police custody, according to recent testimony by US Senator Chuck Grassley. Of those requests, 62 percent were for people who were previously charged or convicted of a crime or presented some other public safety risk. Almost 1,900 of the illegal immigrants released by sanctuary communities were later re-arrested.”

Copyright State House News Service